How To Deal With Difficult People At Work

For many people, the obligation to work remotely during the pandemic was – whisper it – a blessing. Finally, you can avoid those difficult colleagues. The ones who were making your day-to-day working life a misery… they’re now relegated to the corner of a zoom call. A few annoying pixels.

Workplaces have always had difficult people. We are not all alike. There are the doomsayers, the challengers, the quibblers and the downright arrogant.

And that’s just the sales team.

So what do you do? Retire to a remote island of one in the Hebrides and invest in really good WiFi? Or do you face up to the challenge of working with people who are potentially a little bit annoying?

Of course, you have to face up the challenge. Even if you’re working remotely, even if you’re hybrid like most people now, you’re going to have to encounter these people who make work life hard, and you have to find ways of dealing with them, and making the day a little more pleasant for everyone.

Negative Nancies

I knew an Irish guy once who I thought would have been quite hard to work with. He was what another colleague of mine would call a “negative Nancy”. Ah no, this isn’t going to work. Ah no, you’ll fail if you try that, so you will. And so on, and so on.

The trouble is, he was often right.

If you’re an optimist, if you’re someone who looks on the bright side of life and always wants to try new things, you sometimes need a “negative Nancy” to come along and show you that perhaps, in reality, things aren’t that easy. There will be challenges and obstacles, the sky is not always clear, and you need to think everything through very carefully.

My Irish friend was just that kind of person. He could be difficult, he could be obstinate, but he didn’t come at things in an unfriendly manner, or at least not intentionally. He just thought things through differently.

And workplaces need this. They need the negativity, even if that negativity can be dismissed. We all need it to bring a little balance to the workplace.

So if you have a Negative Nancy, realise that you need this person to give a more rounded view on things, and they’re only trying to help.

Argumentative Alans

Some people love confrontation. In fact, they thrive on it.

Argumentative Alans, for wont of a better name, are the types of people who like to provoke conflict in the workplace. Very often, they don’t mean to upset people and they don’t mean to offend, and in many cases, they end up forgetting they ever had the argument in the first place.

Do we need them? Probably not. But we have to live with them.

There are different ways of dealing with Argumentative Alans. You can argue back and enjoy the to-and-fro, even taking conflicting positions as a matter of fun, or you can just back down and laugh at them, walking away from any argument.

Most importantly, you have to recognise that their love of conflict is not something you’re going to change – so either you respond in good humour, or you walk away – in good humour.

Manipulative Maureens

The manipulative Maureens can be found in many workplaces. They’re the ones playing one person off another. They’re the ones who are saying one thing to the boss, and another thing to you. They’re the ones who are creating little cliques only to drop them all in it when push comes to shove. You know the types.

You’ll recognise them because they’re more often than not complaining about a colleague. Beware anyone who complains about a colleague behind their back, because if they can do it to someone else, they’ll do it to you.

Dealing with Manipulative Maureens is never easy. Myself, I’ve found myself nodding along with a non-committal “mm-hm” and a “sounds terrible” before quickly changing the topic of conversation. I’ve often found this the best way to deal with them. If you get dragged in, you’re part of the story and there is literally no way out.

Dominant Daves

Finally, there are the Dominant Daves. We’ve all met them before, talking over everyone in meetings and pushing their point of view to the point that it obliterates those of everyone else.

To those of a less dominating nature, it can be intimidating and frustrating. It can feel as if your voice is never going to be heard, and that your opinion doesn’t matter.

Indeed, if you’re going to survive in an organisation where there is at least one Dominant Dave, you need to ensure that meetings, and even conversations, are an opportunity for everyone to share opinions. And that has to be made very clear to the Dominant Dave.

Sometimes, their dominance comes from a viewpoint that they are entirely correct, and they may need some assuaging. For instance, telling them that they’ve made a very good point, thank you for making that point, now let’s hear from someone else… this can act as a nice coda to the point being made. Or, if their dominance comes from a viewpoint that they aren’t being listened to, they’ll need reassurance that they have been listened to.

We are not all alike – so deal with it

So, unless we all plan to live on islands of one in the Hebrides with very good WiFi, we’re always going to have to deal with difficult people. And that requires a plan. Take stock of the people around you. Who is annoying you, and what can you do to live with their behaviour? It’s very hard to change people, and it’s very hard to modify their behaviours, but you can modify yours in order to fit in with them and – sometimes – help them understand their own behaviour.

People are mostly not coming from a bad place – whether they’re negative, confrontative, dominant or manipulative, they’re often looking at the same problems that you are, but in a different way.

So your plan for dealing with it has to start with understanding the place that they’re coming from, and the common objectives you share:

  • Understand that there may sometimes be reasons for their behaviour that you don’t know
  • Listen to them, as often difficult people simply want to be listened to
  • Ensure that they are treated equally in conversations and meetings
  • Prepare yourself for confrontation or disagreement, and don’t take it personally

If you want to learn more about how to deal with difficult people in the workplace, we’re running a brand-new half-day course that helps you come up with a plan for managing these situations in the workplace. Find out more here.

Published on Sep 29, 2022 by Gareth Cartman